Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation Iraq

US admits errors in Iraq

Concession comes a decade after Donald Rumsfeld, then US secretary of defence, dismissed looting of the National Museum in Baghdad with the comment “stuff happens”

The cupola of Samarra’s minaret was damaged during fighting in Iraq in 2005

US officials have acknowledged “mistakes in Iraq” over the protection of cultural property after the US-led invasion. The admission comes a decade after Donald Rumsfeld, then the US secretary of defence, dismissed the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad in April 2003—less than four weeks after the invasion—with the comment: “Stuff happens.”

Officials including Richard Jackson, an attorney in the defence department, now acknowledge that errors were made. Jackson represented the US in 2009 when it ratified the 1954 Hague Convention, which calls for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. At the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation conference in New York on 1 November, he cited an “ad hoc” approach and insufficient resources to stabilise Iraq.

The military operated under the premise that museums, monuments and other cultural sites identified on a “no-strike” list compiled before the invasion “should not be targeted unless demanded by necessities of war”, he said. Decisions in the field, however, were sometimes problematic.

A necessity of war?

Jackson singled out the partial destruction in 2005 of a 1,200-year-old spiral minaret—an architectural monument that appeared on Iraqi banknotes—in Samarra, where army snipers had been posted. “The commander said he believed it was a military necessity because [the minaret] provided the best view,” Jackson said. But posting snipers there made it a military target, and “insurgents took out the cupola”, he said. “The commander was reprimanded.”

Corine Wegener, now the Smithsonian Institution’s preservation specialist for cultural heritage, was in Iraq in 2003 as one of what she called “the modern-day monuments men”. She was the only museum specialist among them, and described a lack of support. Her group was part of a civil-affairs team within the military, but “as the invasion occurred, they didn’t bring in the civil-affairs people”, she said.

Wegener and her small team did not arrive at the National Museum until 16 May, well after the looting; they found 15,000 objects missing. The FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security came in to help recover stolen objects, partly through an amnesty programme, but when Wegener left, nine months later, “we still didn’t have a conservator”. She also spoke of mass looting at Iraq’s archaeological sites.

Was the US obliged to prevent looting? Jackson said there is “an emerging consensus” among military lawyers that, after an invasion, there is an obligation to establish stability on the ground, with advance planning and increased resources, to forestall looting—“a lesson from Operation Iraqi Freedom”, he said.

Monuments men

The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit, known as “the monuments men”, was a group of around 350 curators and experts enlisted to protect cultural treasures during and after the Second World War. Their retrieval and restitution of five million looted items was without precedent, according to Robert Edsel, who wrote a book about them. A film based on Edsel’s book—“The Monuments Men”, directed by and starring George Clooney—is scheduled for release in early 2014.

More from The Art Newspaper


6 Jan 14
17:4 CET


The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the stimulus for the looting of museums and archaeological sites on a massive scale. If any crumb of comfort can be taken from the sorry event, it is that the invasion was also the stimulus for a renewed acceptance by the military that the protection of cultural property during conflict is a responsibility they must acknowledge and accept. The USA Department of Defence, and the UK Ministry of Defence, have taken this responsibility seriously and have begun to work with archaeologists and others to implement appropriate training for their armed forces and to take cultural property into consideration during operational targeting. As part of this, the USA has also ratified the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict - embarrassingly leaving the UK as one of the few major military powers not to have ratified the Convention.

6 Jan 14
17:21 CET


Contrary to what the article strongly implies, the Hague Convention does not require militaries to protect cultural sites from civilian looters, only from pillaging by its own troops and from direct military actions like bombing. As I show in The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (University of Chicago Press, 2009), the no-strike list worked, and there were very few direct military actions destructive of sites or monuments -- but there was massive looting, not just of the museum but of thousands of archaeological sites over several years following the invasion. That is what the Bush administration mainly bears responsibility for having ignored. Thankfully, the military has recognized this problem, and its invasion planning document now includes the order to secure cultural sites, so if God forbid we ever again invade another country, the military ought to have its act together in this particular area.

6 Jan 14
17:21 CET


I'd like to clarify that while I only arrived in Baghdad on May 16th, 2003, the rest of my Civil Affairs team and other U.S. military personnel had already been working at the Iraq Museum for nearly a month. Also, when I mentioned a lack of support, I also referenced a lack of response from the international cultural heritage community. The lack of an international emergency response regime for cultural heritage in accordance with the 1954 Hague Convention is a problem organizations like the Smithsonian and the Blue Shield are working to help solve.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this